“Silver Linings Playbook”
Roger Durling with Writer/Director David O. Russell
Durling: David I don’t say this lightly, you are one of the best directors working in cinema today. It’s an understatement. Nobody makes a movie about people suffering like this with such an optimistic take on life.
Russell: Thank you Roger for having me, this is my fourth time being here. So thank you for coming out today. It is such a special thing. In some ways Santa Barbara is what Philadelphia is to New York, in retrospect to Los Angeles but in a much more beautiful escapist way. Every time I come here I question why I don’t come down here more often because it is so amazing down here. Should I tell you about how the film got started? Well about 5 years ago Sydney Pollock and Anthony Megulla acquired this book by Matthew Quick and Sydney offered it to me to write and direct. He was partnered with Harvey Weinstein and he said Matthew Quick has a great voice but it is going to be tricky to pull off. I said I think I can do it because it is personal to me because I would never had paid as close attention to it as I did if it were not for my son. So I am very grateful to my older son, and I have two sons, but he is the older one who rang the door bell that De Niro chased in his pajamas. That scene was one of the first things that I really wanted to put in the movie that came to my mind, in the adaptation. Of course you make it your own in the adaptation, which took several years. That 3am reckoning of the soul; what is happening with the family, the lows and the highs, it always seems to happen in your pajamas for some reason; whether it is a marriage or a crisis or something. So my son has, struggled with bi-polarity and other challenges so I had been through that so I knew that I was coming from the right place. Because it was very personal and specific about how it was funny and how it was tragic. Mr. De Niro also had personal experience with this, which we had been talking about our sons for many years, which schools they were in and what they were doing. He cried when I gave him the script and we talked about it. I had three feelings as I watched Bob cry, one was I can’t believe I am watching Robert De Niro cry, the other was yeah that is what it is like to be a father in this situation and you don’t know until your there, and the third was I think this means that he is going to do the movie. He really did bring it. He memorized monologues and he probably hasn’t memorized since Casino and he hasn’t worked that hard but in this he really wanted to show up. And he had a father-son kind of relationship with Bradley Cooper already from Limitless, a picture they had done together. So that made it very personal to him as well.
Durling: There is such grittiness and authenticity to the neighborhood, to these characters, and to the whole look which I think grounded the movie. How did you work on that?
Russell: I think that life just lead us all on our own paths and I think I myself got lost in the wilderness about 10 years ago, around the time of my divorce, which was very humbling to me. This was in the midst of I Heart Huckabees (it was easy to see that I was a little lost at that time). When I came back from that, it was very humbling and I felt that I needed to keep it real, emotional and raw and that was god’s gift to me; to do the best that I can. I wrote this before the fighter but then it didn’t happen in God’s time and it wasn’t meant to happen because the money didn’t come together nor did the cast. So, The Fighter happened which I never expected and it took me into this very authentic world where I became friends with all those people. I had such love for them, they were characters that you could love but also really hate and that then made me go rewrite this script. I love the world as much as I love the story, we would keep Italian food cooking in the house so that the house smelled like a real home and it felt like a real place. I was able to write in a rhythm that I understood from my family and De Niro. So it was very intimate to us all and Bradley is from a neighborhood right next that one so we would pick up language. If you have a love for it, it comes naturally just like with the characters. Especially if you really love it and it really turns you on. I heard that Mrs. Capaletti who lived down the street from where we were shooting, who happens to be the mother of the Heisman Trophy winner John Capaletti (which I didn’t know), said to her neighbor she wasn’t going to make homemade for the crew unless they picked her house to be in the film. Meanwhile I went over and said that “I know we didn’t pick your house but what are homemades?” because I had never heard that expression before. And she said it’s when you spend the whole day making the parmesan or other cheeses. That was a very specific language to that neighborhood so you grab things as you go. You are scouting one location and you meet a 25-year old shut-in named Jesse and everybody is saying, David why aren’t you scouting this location because I am talking to this kid and his family who is telling me how people move the remotes when their team is in the end zone. I mean the kid was a savant about the Eagles and we picked the 2008 season, which is the season that they live. We picked that season because it made the games very specific and accurate to 2008 as well as that was the year that the economy collapsed and people, like Robert De Niro’s character, lost their jobs but also their pensions, which was all current for that time.
Durling: One of the things I love about your movies, Flirting with Disaster comes to mind, is that you shoot the stories with hand-held cameras. The shots move around with the characters and it feels so intimate. I was wondering why you use that specific style in this film?
Russell: Well part of it comes from feeling. It is like a song, it first starts with the script. Here is the song and you want everyone to feel the rhythm of the language and the people and the camera becomes a part of that. I don’t stay at video village, I don’t like to use dollies or equipment, and it to me it seems to violate the space. I like to light for 360 degrees so it is very organic. I stay right next to the steadi-cam operator and if I tap him he knows that I want him to go to the other side of the room. The actors always have to be alive because it is not like ‘oh they are doing my coverage now, and now they are doing his coverage”. It is always happening in a 20 minute period and it just keeps going for as long as we can. And that camera has a very intimate feeling to it and at the beginning we tried to make it feel very unstable like Pat felt with his life. There is an intensity that I like. I like to try to get a sustained energy and intensity. I like when a film grabs me and it sort of pulls me in and so that is what we tried to do with the camera and the emotion.
Durling: I have described to my students, some of them are here today, that your style is controlled chaos. You take the audience to the edge where things seem to be veering out of control, but they are not, because you are always in control.
Russell: Well it is very specific. I would say the worst times as a filmmaker are when you don’t know what you want to do. Those times are over for me in the sense that I feel very confident and clear. If everybody from Robert De Niro to Bradley Cooper to Jennifer Lawrence to Chris Tucker, they need to feel that confidence and then they will put themselves in your hands. So it is very clear that the script and or the scene is demanding, but once it gets going it does take on a life of its own. I would say the chaos that you’re talking about is in some of the bigger ensemble scenes like the parlor scene which is the way I came to think of the film and how specific it was. There are currencies that are like life and death that each character has. For example, De Niro’s character is football and book making and he takes it as seriously as cash. So, when he talks about the games he is talking about his life and death and I relate that to my father who did not know how to talk to me directly except through something like that currency. Jennifer’s currency is the dance, Bradley’s is the letter. These are life and death currencies that are very specific and they all collide in that scene. So in that scene, it’s like a chemist having amazing chemicals that they have developed for 90 minutes that your now going to combine in that moment. You know exactly what’s happening and what the character is doing and sometimes surprises happen and suddenly you realize that Pauly Herman, who plays De Niro’s good friend, would define him more and becomes a wonderful improvisation. Oh Pauly, whom runs some restaurants for De Niro and he was in Good Fellas and says “I would never” and when she says “Your twisting the knife right here, you get off on this you have been betting against my father for years” and he says “Yeah ok. Don’t say that take that back that is bullshit. Take that back!”. Then she says “Yeah prove it”. We came up with that right then and it is a wonderful moment for Bob to try to prove it. Bob has suddenly shifted alliances which is what the whole scene is. It is very specific; there is no chaos in it. It is instead just the energy from the intensity of the combination of all of those agendas.
Durling: Speaking of combustible, the chemistry between Jennifer and Bradley is very spectacular. If you could explain how you went about casting them for these roles?
Russell: They are both very wonderful actors and very open and warm people. They liked each other and their first task was to dance together for two weeks. They got really intimate by learning to dance. And you might ask why did we know that Bradley could do this? For me I thought that Amy Adams was a surprise in The Fighter. People would say to me that I am not going to believe her to be a tough woman in a bar but I knew she could do it and about four minutes in people would say I didn’t know that was Christian Bale. So in this picture I knew that this would be a Bradley Cooper that people haven’t seen so much of before and I knew that he could do it because in Wedding Crashers he was very angry. So angry that I thought he was like that as a person and when I met him I told him that and the way he responded to that convinced me more that he could do the role; and that there were things that he had not put on screen yet. He said to me that he had been, at that time, a less happy person and he did weigh 30lbs more and he was abusing substances and he wasn’t happy. When he told me that, I knew that it mirrored the character in the film, including the 30lbs, and the fact that he had been through that and is very open and vulnerable guy. That is a great gift for a director and that is why I started on his back because I wanted to feel like I was re-introducing him. And when you come around to his face and you look in his eyes you can feel the hometown crowd in Philadelphia, that loves him so much, and see that we lost our home field advantage when he makes them so uncomfortable in the first ten minutes of the movie. Because he is such a violate character and you had to earn back the audience honestly. They had to be brought back into the picture basically by the story and the characters.
Durling: And what about Jennifer Lawrence, how did it come about casting her?
Russell: Jennifer was our 11th hour choice. I do find that the women roles are the secret in every movie that I come onto or work on. That was the secret to The Fighter for me, the women. The women is what made me want to do The Fighter, it was creating those sisters and I think as the boats rise the whole movie gets better. So we had every major movie star in that age group from 20 to 35 wanting to do this role and coming to my house to audition for that role. We had three very strong choices. People said ‘what about Jennifer Lawrence’, I said ‘I don’t know what kind of range she has and she seems young.’ And she insisted on auditioning and it was the first time I had ever Skyped an audition which was from her parent’s house in Louisville, Kentucky in her father’s den. She was dressed up as the character and put on the heavy eyeliner and she just knocked me out. She is a very special actor and she is ageless. She is like 22 but seemed 40. She is like both things and she shares a lot with her character. I will tell one quick story about her. She is a very confident woman and not neurotic at all, and a natural athlete. You would think that she wasn’t paying attention and just rooting around in my food bag and making fun of my cookies and stuff. I would say, ‘you realize we are about to do a scene here’ and she would step in and knock everybody out. I saw her as a goth girl so when we camera tested her for her wardrobe and makeup she had black lipstick, piercings , combat boots and a plaid dress that some of the punk-suicide girls wear. The screen test freaked Harvey Weinstein out. It was all a part of the process, and I love a collaborate process and I will welcome Harvey Weinstein and the actor Bradley Cooper, who was in the editing bay quite a bit. There is no note that I am afraid of, Harvey let me here your note. Let’s see if this is going to make the film better or not. As a result of that, we retained a lot of that and it was as if her character had lived a goth phase by getting to put all that on and camera test that and it was inside of her. It was as if her character got to live some of that time and we kept the dark nail polish and the black corseted coat; as well as most of the attitude and eyeliner. So that is a nice thing for building a character. Same thing for Bradley, he played the more extreme and less extreme, and so we had to pick very carefully how extreme his character should really be. But he got to retain all that inside of himself.
Durling: There is one scene with Jennifer Lawrence that took my breath away. It was the parlor scene with Robert De Niro, who is one of the most amazing actors, when you realize that Jennifer is at the same magnitude as De Niro. You see that they are both equally masterful in that scene and it is breathtaking. Jacki Weaver, phenomenal work that she has done here, very understated and loving and caring. How did you come about casting her?
Russell: I saw her in Animal Kingdom and she is a very special actress. She commands the screen every time the camera is on her. I told Bob and her that they were a couple very much still in love and had a sex life. Once I told them that, they both immediately understood the relationship and they just inhabited it because they are both fantastic actors. Jackie Weaver was in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, as a school girl. So I mean she has been acting in Australian cinema her whole life. She is a stage actress as well. We had a whole sequence about her character that we couldn’t fit into the movie for being religious and that is some of the artifacts you see in the house and you just can’t always fit everything into the movie. But the moments she is on screen, she is completely commanding attention. I could name several moment right now. She is a very big hearted person.
Durling: The big stand sequence’s playlist, I just love the fact that it mirrors his mental state and their relationship. How did that playlist, the choosing of the music come about?
Russell: Well the music is usually something that I have to feel personally and emotionally locate it with the characters. For example, Led Zeppelin is very much like Pat, The White Stripes are very much like Tiffany but so is Dave Brubeck’s Maria. I liked the idea that all the music was on Ronnie’s iPod and that Pat didn’t have an iPod and he inherited Ronnie’s. John Ortiz is also a good actor and that was a revelation for him to explain to me. I knew I wanted a guy to be Pats best friend, who is supposed to have his life together and there were a lot people who seemed anonymous to me and I wanted an ethical person; a real person. He came to me, this is an example of an actor changing a role, a movie that was all about his character as actors will do and he said ‘what if this guy is not happy?’ and I said ‘well we can’t do that because everybody else in the movie is not happy.’ I said, Bradley is not happy, Jennifer isn’t happy, De Niro is not happy, you have to be happy’. Then I realized it was really kind of a wonderful idea that the guy who has the baby in the house and the stuff is really straining underneath the pressure of it, which became a nice thing for him. The music is bipolar, the Led Zeppelin Song, “and if I say to you tomorrow”, starts off very quietly and then it gets extremely loud and then it gets quite again. That is the scene in the attic when he smashes everything up, that was perfect for him. The White Stripes is perfect for them. Stevie Wonder is a song that was obviously his trigger song but to pick a different Stevie Wonder song Don’t you worry about a thing, versus My Cherie and more; which was kind of showing, to some degree his trigger by picking another Stevie Wonder song and dancing to it. Frank Sinatra on the other hand was very much De Niro and Jacki’s world, their old fashion world in the house.
Durling: You seemed to never be daunted about the tone, especially because it moves from hilarious moments to very heartbreaking moments in milliseconds. Were you ever really overly concerned about it?
Russell: Oh no I was very concerned about it, you have to be very concerned about everything. I mean it is what I learned; you really can’t take your eyes off the ball. I feel it is a privilege to get to make a movie, but even more to make a movie like this because they are not making a lot of films like this. So I feel very privileged which is what I wanted to make everybody on the set feel to be there as well. And you have to constantly worry about everything and keep pinching yourself and saying is this the right choice and if not get a couple of other choices. I was worried about the tone, so you have to cover it several different ways so that once you get into the editing room, the wonderful editor like Jake Cassidy, you can pick between different things. And we cut versions of this that were very dark movies that were much more extreme but you have to find the balance in it. The key to the tone is to keep it real. We are never trying to be funny and we never had any goal but to be real. That is what is funny to me, people were completely invested in their currency or their situation that is why Raging Bull, is some of the funniest scenes I have ever seen in cinema. It is just because those characters are committed and you’re watching these people and going “oh my, who are these people, they are arguing about the eagles or about a dance contest”. That is how you do it, just by being real about it.